The Language of Persuasion (from Study Guide by Cass Morris)

Through the use of rhetorical devices (or figures of speech), Shakespeare provides a map to help an actor figure out how to play a character and to communicate the story of the play to the audience.  These devices may provide clues to meaning, may indicate how a character’s mind works, or may audibly point the audience towards important concepts in a character’s speech.  Rhetoric is one of many tools an actor can use to discover playable moments in a speech or in dialogue. For example, a character who uses ellipsis, leaving out part of a sentence to force the other characters or audience members to complete it in their minds, might be forging a bond, or he might simply be in a hurry.

Julius Caesar includes one of Shakespeare’s most famous explorations of rhetoric: Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech, an elaborate ploy in which Antony coaxes the plebeian mob from animosity to sympathy. Act Three, scene two is a verbal battle; Brutus first wins the plebeians over to his side, and Antony must conquer their good opinions for himself.

In this activity, your students will compare Brutus’s exoneration to Antony’s funeral oration, performing a rhetorical analysis of each and determining why Antony’s speech is ultimately more successful than Brutus’s.  This examination will include not only the R.O.A.D.S. categories, but also an examination of logos, pathos, and ethos, the three forms of persuasive appeal.

Step #1: Logos, Pathos, and Ethos

  • Discuss the three basic forms of persuasive appeal: logos, pathos, and ethos.
    • Logos: the appeal to reason. The speaker presents facts and suggests interpretations of them based on logical thought processes.  Logos also refers to the connections made between word choice and the order of the words’ construction.
      • Aristotle wished that all communication could take this form, but, owing to the frailties of human nature, he conceded the need for pathos and ethos.
      • Does logos always have to be truthful? Or can a speaker create a very rational, very logical argument using false information? Or twist truthful facts into a misleading interpretation?
      • You may wish to discuss common logical fallacies ( see http://www.theskepticsguide.org/resources/logicalfallacies.aspx  for a guide)
    • Pathos: the appeal to emotion. This appeal involves the speaker knowing his audience and what will appeal to them on a personal level. Values, morals, fears, and affections may all play a part in a pathetic appeal. At its most basic level, pathos is when a speaker makes the argument all about the audience, rather than about objective fact or about himself.
      • Make a list of all the different emotions your students think it might be helpful to call on in a persuasive argument.
      • What does a speaker need to know about his audience in order to use pathos effectively?
    • Ethos: the persuasive appeal of the speaker’s character and authority; the means of credentialing oneself to speak. The speaker must establish credibility, based on personal reputation and authoritative position, and must also indicate that she is knowledgeable about the topic she is speaking on.
      • Make a list of different ways a speaker might credential herself (introduction by another trusted person, talking about her background herself, a bio in an event program, etc).
      • How can a speaker get an audience to trust him if they don’t already know who he is? How does presentation (dress, accent, posture, etc) play into the qualifications of ethos?
  • Ask your students for examples of each form of appeal from their own lives.
    • When have they seen others use these methods of appeal? (Politicians, characters in movies, etc)
    • When have they themselves needed to use them? (Running for class office, job interviews, college applications, etc)
    • When have they ever seen these forms of appeal fail to persuade an audience?

Activity: Brutus’s Exoneration & Antony’s Funeral Oration

  • Remind them of the circumstances Brutus is facing: He has made himself the public face of a group of conspirators who just murdered the ruling dictator of Rome, a man who was hated by much of the aristocracy but extremely popular with the army and with the common people.
  • Remind them of the circumstances Antony is facing: Brutus has just convinced the crowd that he was right to kill Caesar, because Caesar was a tyrant who would have been the death of all freedom for all Roman citizens. Brutus has also, however, given Antony leave to speak Caesar’s eulogy, and has bid the plebeians to listen to what he has to say. Antony also enters with Caesar’s body, which at the moment is still covered-up.
  • Discuss:
    • What does Brutus have working against him at the beginning of the scene?
    • What does Antony have working against him at the beginning of the scene?
    • What do they have working in their favor?
    • If you were in this situation, what approach might you take?

 

 

Just like Brutus and Antony, modern politicians use rhetoric to attempt to influence the minds and hearts of voters. Ask your students when they have heard a politician try to excuse himself for something, like Brutus does. When have they heard a politician try to change their minds about something, like Antony does? For further exploration, have your students examine campaign speeches and public addresses with an eye for rhetoric used for persuasion or emotional appeal.  You might consider Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech, stump speeches from current or past elections, or presidential addresses on important events such as 9-11, Hurricane Katrina, or the Gulf Oil Spill. Or read our recent blog post on the rhetoric of Hermione in the Winter’s Tale and other contemporary women forced to testify in open forums.

Understanding the language of persuasion empowers students to think critically about how these appeals are used on them, and how they can in turn use them for their own benefit. Want our annotated copies of Brutus and Antony’s speeches for your classroom? Sign up for our monthly Education Newsletter! You can also purchase our Julius Caesar Study Guide here.

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